Scared of the streets? Maryland’s Stress Maps are here to help

Officials survey 3,500 miles of streets to produce colored-coded map that helps cyclists plot a route they're comfortable with

Montgomery County in Maryland recently released stress maps, rating the overall scariness of various streets in their community.

In 2015, a total of 817 cyclists were killed on American roads, which represents a 13 percent increase on 2014. As cycling participation continues to rise, 45,000 individuals were reported injured in bicycle-related accidents. Many riders cite their fear of injury on poorly maintained and unsafe roads as the paramount reason for not cycling more.

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Published just last year, the stress map has become popular for both local cyclists and bicycle infrastructure activists. The American Planning Association (APA) found the stress map so helpful that it won the transportation planning award during the annual conference held in New York City.

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Creating the map was no easy task, as Montgomery County officials spent a year surveying 3,500 miles of roads using Google’s Street View feature. Data collected included traffic speeds and volume, the number of lanes on each road, locations of bike lanes, the frequency of cars utilizing parking lots and the ease of crossing intersections.

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Specific data was also collected from county staff on the ground when necessary.

“If you’re looking at a path on the side of the road, there’s a big difference between whether the path is right next to the curb of a high-speed road, or if it might have some tree buffer,” David Anspacher, a transportation planner for the county, told Wired. “In some instances, we needed to measure the distance between the path and the road edge.”

All of the information they collected was loaded into a formula utilized in the transportation planning industry called the “Level of Traffic Stress”, which places streets in four different levels of safeness. Level one, in blue, indicates cyclists are physically separated from traffic, while level two (colored green) signifies a road with a bike lane. Level three is either yellow or orange and means traffic speeds are higher and bike lanes are not as wide. The final level, colored red on the stress map, indicates fast moving traffic above 35 miles per hour and possibly no bike lane at all. Using the interactive map online, riders can plan routes based on their comfort level with traffic.

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Cycling commuters have increased 46 percent from 2005 to 2013, so the need for increased bicycle infrastructure and knowledge sharing is evident.

“Whether it’s something that can be taken up to another area of the county and be useful to planners and other communities – things like that really hit a high mark with us,” says W. Shedrick Colman, the chairman of the APA awards jury.

Colors map from blue (least stress) to red (most stress)

As cyclists continue to flock to the roads as an alternative mode of transportation, they’ll need all available resources to plan their trips safely. Montgomery County is setting a fine example of how local governments can help in this process moving forward.